City's Plan to Save a Local School by Replacing It Stirs Skepticism

Thursday, January 27, 2011

PS 114 parents Crystal King and Eric Stroman tour an Explore charter school (Beth Fertig)

At a Brooklyn elementary school set to be phased-out by the city, parents and educators will get to weigh-in tonight about the city's plans to replace it with a charter school. But many say their cries for help about mismanagement over the years were ignored.

A hearing on the possible phase out of PS 114 will be held tonight at the Canarsie school and a vote by the Panel for Educational Policy on the elementary school and the fate of 24 others throughout the city is slated for next week. Last year, the city was blocked from phasing out and replacing 19 low-performing schools when a court found it did not provide enough community notification under law.

Some say the school had been raising red flags for sometime. The principal of PS 114 was removed by the city in 2009 after a carbon monoxide alarm went off and the school had no evacuation plan. No one was hurt. But para professional Maria Shalbinski said another kind of alarm had actually been ringing for some time.

"We complained for four years that this woman was destroying our school. And we cried we went to rallies, we took buses to Tweed," she said, referring to the Department of Education's headquarters in the Lower Manhattan Tweed Courthouse.

The Department of Education said it spent nearly a million dollars over the past three years on math and literacy coaches, along with staff development at the school. It also notes that only about a third of its students were proficient on last year’s state math and reading tests. And enrollment is shrinking.

But Shalbinski and others claim the principal’s mismanagement was ignored by education officials. A report that same year by the school system’s Special Commissioner of Investigations found the principal committed “various financial infractions including the use of false bids.”

The school also ran up a deficit of almost $180,000 under her watch, which it’s now paying back partly by reducing staff. The principal is now working as an assistant principal in the Bronx. (The Special Commissioner's report urged the city not to hire her again but a Department of Education spokesman said that after reviewing her entire record it opted instead for this settlement)

Gym teacher Scott Schwarz said it all feels like too little too late.

"Why is there no accountability?" he posed. "The accountability is being left to the students, the parents and staff. It’s not being left to the Chancellor. It’s not being left to the mayor, the superintendents, anyone. Just us."

The city is now having a hard time convincing teacher and parents that it now has a better plan: a charter school in the same building.

Morty Ballen, founder of Explore schools, which runs two charters in Brooklyn and is planning to open a third inside PS 114, took parents from 114 on a tour of a small charter in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, from PS 114 and told them why his elementary school has two teachers for every class of 28 students.

"The reason is to get a low student-teacher ratio," he said, as they walk through a hallway with signs that urge the students to give someone a compliment.

On the tour, parents were shown how much individualized attention kindergarten students receive when half go to gym or music and the rest stay with their teachers.

"What do I mean by good readers?" asked a teacher who's working with just three students. A girl piped up: "People that read and they be good." The teacher then led them in a guided reading session where they read a picture book together.

If Explore opens a new school in PS 114, it would be the first time a charter has committed to replacing a school and taking as many of the students as it can.

Eric Stroman, whose son attends first grade at PS 114, was impressed with the charter's quiet classes.

"The children’s behavior in the classroom versus them being all rowdy which you tend to see with first graders or second graders," he said, describing the difference.

But Crystal King, the Parent Association president of PS 114, was more circumspect. She grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and wants to keep her local school.

"I love it there. I wouldn’t want it to change," she said.

King said the situation is especially complicated because the new charter only has space for half the children of PS 114. The city plans to open a second, regular school in the building for everyone else. So there would be lottery to determine who goes where.

"The main concern is where will my child go? How will my child be enrolled? Will my child be accepted? Will it be not accepted to the school? That’s the questions that they’re asking," King said of the parents.

Meanwhile, teachers from PS 114 would stay on the city’s payroll, but they’d have to look for new jobs in the system. They could apply to work at the charter – but they’d work a longer day, and lose their union benefits.

Maria Shalbinski, who’s worked at the school for 15 years, said she’s not just fighting for job security by opposing the charter. She said she wants to keep the school intact and doesn’t trust Mayor Bloomberg’s push for charter schools.

"It’s all about money, privatizing," she said. "Every single penny that you got now you can put back into the public schools and make those schools strong and even stronger."

Ballen, the founder of Explore schools, said he understands all of those concerns. He previously taught on the Lower East Side.  

"I was in a school that was closed," he said. "And I felt that the school needed to be closed because I didn’t think the kids were getting the education – and it was hard, I cared about the kids but it also sort of compelled me to start Explore. At the end of the day this is about the students. And we need to put their needs first."


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Comments [3]

Ann Errera

Parents beware! Things are not what they seem to be. When the mayor and chancellor come and visit schools they are presented with a 'showcase' of an imaginary 'ideal' environment. They are seeing an 'illusion'. But what really happens in public schools is that the teachers roll up their sleeves and give the very best education they can to a variety of children with different needs, and they find ways and resources to override the personal traumas, financial stesses, and losses that many children endure, to empower them to overcome their challenges and make a path to learning. That's what is REALLY going on. And to close down schools that have been touching the lives of REAL human beings is a crime. Don't buy into the "fluff" that is presented by people who are serving their own personal agendas to further their sorry ineptitudes and cover up their own limitations by presenting a NEW school. Look deeper. Do the charter schools have smaller class sizes? They are quiet? The children get more personal attention. Then all the more power to the teachers who have been serving students in larger classes and have managed to perform 'miracles' against all odds. PS 114 still remained steadfast in their committment to give students the finest education, even when their administration was poorly selected by the DOE, and even when the DOE did not heed the pleas of teachers who had a proven history of exemplary teaching act to save the school from the mismanagement of a very sick administrator. If a teacher so much as intimidated a student they would wind up in the 'rubber room' and yet this administrator was allowed to bully children and teachers and get away with it. I remember working at that school when this particular administrator made the students clean the whole cafeteria with clorox bleach because some of the students left some papers or food on the floor. My students had allergic reactions and the parents came to school the very next day extremely irate. So the DOE chose to ignore all the damage that this adminstrator did to the students and teachers, while they put a teacher with some frivolous complaint in a rubber room???? Why didnt' they SAVE the school then?? And NOW they want to close it down and make it into a charter school ...and punish it....when it was the DOE who contributed even more to it's downfall. The should be aiding the school, not closing it down. It's just all about some OTHER agenda...So beware.

Jan. 29 2011 03:14 PM
Alan Coles

Years ago unruly students were place in the old 600 schools. Due to a lawsuit by parents the public schools were forced to admit these students. The DOE is now funneling these students to schools they wish to take over for privately run schools. There should be an investigation through the Freedom of Information Act as to how these poor performing students (truants,homeless,ESL, and those with discipline problems) ended up at those schools for closure. Every incident report has the name of the student involved. Those students who did poorly on standardized test can be easily looked up. When any of my students who fit the above catagory were asked where they lived it was somewhere in another boro,far away from the school,or Rikers Island. Mr. Mayor,since you love statistics,show us these statistics.

Jan. 28 2011 03:53 PM
Estelle Tsantes from Brooklyn

Imagining that teachers choose to do a bad job is like thinking that stand-up comedians want to flop or that concert pianists purposely hit wrong notes. Yet the US attitude towards teachers seems predicated on that idea. In countries whose students outperform ours, teachers are considered valuable. They are treated as professionals and given sufficient preparation time and time to collaborate. Here we think that taking away union benefits (which ones, I wonder: health insurance? prescription coverage? pensions? not just that hated tenure, I suspect) will produce better teachers. In the short run, some teachers may be more successful because of the excitement and hope of being in a new school. But how long will teachers stay, especially knowing that teachers down the hall are getting benefits that they don't? Retaining teachers is harder in NYC schools than getting rid of bad teachers, although the latter issue gets all the press.
Charter schools won't solve the problems of NYC schools. In fact, so far there's not proof that they are more successful at educating students. They are just a form of union busting.

Jan. 28 2011 01:39 PM

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